While it is commonplace to invest a considerable amount of thought, energy and pride in the design of our gardens, herbaceous borders in particular, the vegetable garden often gets overlooked and undervalued as a potential site for artistic excellence.
Ornamental vegetable gardens have a long-standing tradition. The Persians filled their walled gardens with fruit trees and edible plants, adorning these places of refuge while providing food for the table. The Cloisters Museum & Gardens, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, is a wonderful example of how medieval courtyards were home to the cultivation of culinary and medicinal herbs while providing a place for peaceful retreat.
Inspiration can be found in many historic restorations of ornamental vegetable gardens, ranging from the Grande Potagér at Chateau de Villandry in France to England’s The Lost Gardens of Heligan and the walled Victorian kitchen garden at Chilton Foliat. Closer to home, Thomas Jefferson’s historic gardens at Monticello in Virginia celebrate ’s vegetable gardening tradition.
The potagér, derived from the French word meaning soup, was designed with seasonal ingredients that would end up in your crock. Similarly, English kitchen gardens were those in which grew anything that could be placed on your kitchen table, ranging from cut flowers to fruits and vegetables.
Ornamental vegetable gardens can be formal gardens with symmetrical designs and neatly delineated beds, or they can be informal, cottage-style gardens with sweeping drifts, intermingled plants and a colorful, playful exuberance. The garden can be as small as a window box or as large as space accommodates.
After choosing a suitable site (most vegetables need good drainage and full sun, although a few will tolerate light shade) the design process can begin. The following basic tenets of garden design will help to direct and inform your choices.
First, decide the type of garden you would like to create. Often it is useful to draw on successful examples of what has worked for others. Or, you can choose a theme: Do you want to create a pizza garden, a rainbow garden, a medieval herb garden, a French potagér, a Mexican garden, a Native American garden or an heirloom garden? Will color dictate your choices? The possibilities are endless.
Once you have established a vision for the garden, consider cohesive elements such as symmetry, balance and repetition. Shapes, patterns, colors, textures, architectural features or particular plants can all be repeated to unify a design.
Attention to color and texture is just as important in the vegetable garden as it is in the herbaceous border. Color harmonies and complements can easily be achieved with the use of heirloom vegetables and a vast array of cottage-garden flowers. By carefully selecting vegetables, herbs and flowers, you can create beautiful combinations based on color, texture and form.
Finally, create focal points and vertical accents for visual interest. Focal points can be a cozy seating area, a bench, a pergola or well-placed strawberry pots and urns. Vertical accents such as trellises, teepees, A-frames, pea-stakes and tuteurs often are functional as well as attractive, providing vines and indeterminate tomatoes a place to climb and display their goods.
Don’t forget to include decorative garden art. Large ornamental urns or pots blend effortlessly into many designs. Think beyond scarecrows and decorate your garden with features that are fun and fanciful as well as beautiful. Garden furniture can be painted in cheerful colors to match the energy of the site.
Many traditional kitchen gardens have some kind of boundary or enclosure that not only separates the garden from its surroundings but often provides a practical barrier to keep out unwanted pests. Classic boundaries include brick walls, stone walls, wooden fences, wattle or woven fences and hedges.
A simple, split-rail, wooden fence lined with chicken wire to keep out rabbits surrounds the vegetable garden in the The New York Botanical Garden’s Home Gardening Center. A flat-top picket fence would give it a Colonial feel, while a more open and rustic setting could be created by a zigzag wooden fence. The hardscape of the garden will help set the mood and contribute to the overall design. Enclosure creates a sense of intimacy and gives a framework to your garden.
With the boundary in place, consider how you will traverse the garden’s interior. Paths can be made of brick, stone, gravel, straw, bark chips or grass. Vegetable gardens are tended constantly and it is important that the size of the beds and paths are practical and comfortable. Some paths may need to accommodate a wheelbarrow. Also think of seating or dining areas where you can relax and enjoy your hard work.
The beds in an ornamental vegetable garden are often edged. Raised beds are very common since they are easy to work and provide excellent drainage. Ground beds can be edged with bricks, stones, wattle fencing, dwarf hedges or edible borders. Herbs and annuals (particularly lavender, winter savory, parsley, sage, marigolds, pansies and scented geraniums) make excellent borders that can be edible as well as ornamental.
The layout of a kitchen garden should be practical yet aesthetically pleasing and adventurous. Garden writers Jan and Michael Gertley recommend looking at the patterns on quilts as inspiration for the layout of beds and the formation of an overall plan. Beds can be made in the shape of squares, rectangles, circles, triangles or in any geometric pattern that suits your fancy.
It is always helpful to organize your thoughts on paper. Sit down with tracing paper, graph paper, ruler, compass and eraser and sketch a design. If this seems too ambitious a simple sketch will do.
Once you have determined the bed shapes and sizes, it is time to turn to your catalogs and fill in the design. Remember to always plant what you like to eat. The point of growing vegetables is to enjoy eating them.